The Christian society on earth, or, as it is usually called, the Church, is represented in the Scriptures as a kingdom. It was of his Church that the Lord Jesus spake, when He said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The fact of its being a kingdom necessarily implies at least three things – first, a king or governor; secondly, subjects; thirdly, laws. In the Church or kingdom of God, the king is Christ; the subjects are believers; the laws are the Scriptures of truth.
Every king has officers under him, who are charged with the execution of his laws, and who have authority from the crown to do justice and judgment. Judges and magistrates are the office-bearers of a kingdom, deriving their power from the monarch under whom they serve, and putting the laws in force among all ranks and classes of the people. Hence a very palpable division of a kingdom is into rulers and ruled – those whose duty is to administer the law, and those who are bound to obey it.
The same distinction holds in the kingdom of Christ. It also consists of rulers and ruled – the office-bearers entrusted with the dispensation of the laws, and the people who are commanded to yield them submission. This is very plain, from Heb. 13:17 – “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account.” It is clear from this passage that there are some in the Church whose duty is to rule; they are the office-bearers of the Church. It is no less clear that there are others in the Church, whose duty is to obey; they are the private members – the subjects of the kingdom – the people.
A Form of Government
But in every society where it is the acknowledged duty of some parties to exercise authority, and of others to practise submission, there must be what is called government; for in such authority exercised on the one hand, and in such submission rendered on the other, the essence of all government consists. Even was there no passage in the Scriptures but that last quoted, bearing upon the subject, it is undeniable that government was established in the Apostolic Church.
If government existed, some form of government must have been adopted; for to say that there was established in the kingdom of Christ government without a form of government is absurd. History tells us of many ecclesiastical and political wonders, but of all the strange things that have been witnessed in the world or in the Church, since the beginning of time, there has never yet appeared government without a form of government. The thing is impossible. Government in itself is an abstraction. The moment it puts forth power, it becomes a reality – it stands before the world as a visible thing – it assumes a form.
That there was government in the Apostolic Church, and that this government existed under a certain form, seems clear to demonstration. To determine with precision what this form was, is a matter of great consequence; for it must be evident to all that a plan of Church government, instituted by the apostles of the Lord, acting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, must carry with it a degree of lawfulness and authority that no human system, though in itself a masterpiece of wisdom – made venerable by age, or recommended by expediency – ever can exhibit; and that every existing form of Church government is deserving of respect only so far as it conforms in its principles to that Divine original.
But there are obvious reasons that make it a matter of some difficulty to ascertain with accuracy the system of ecclesiastical polity that was established in the New Testament Church.
1. The Apostles, writing to Christians who were themselves members of the Apostolic Church, and of course well acquainted with its organization, did not judge it necessary to enter into detailed descriptions of the Christian society. To do so would have been unnatural. They do occasionally state facts bearing on Church government, and hint indirectly at prevailing practices. These hints and facts were sufficiently suggestive and intelligible to the persons originally addressed, but by us, who live in a distant age, in a foreign country, and among associations widely different, they are not so easily understood.
2. They do not even arrange such facts as bear upon the question in systematic order. If man had had the making of the Bible, it would have been a very different book; but as that circumstance was not left to our option, we must take it as we find it. On examination, we see that it teaches nothing in scientific order. Even morality and doctrine are not there arranged in regular system, but are conveyed in detached portions, and our industry is stimulated by having to gather the scattered fragments, to compare them with each other, and to work them up into order for ourselves. So ecclesiastical polity is not taught in Scripture methodically; but away over the wide field of revelation, facts and hints and circumstances lie scattered, which we are to search for, and examine, and combine, and classify. Now, all do not agree in the arrangement of these facts, nor in the inferences that legitimately flow from them, nor in the mode of constructing a system from the detached material.
Not Taught in Detail
These things make it difficult to ascertain with accuracy, and still more so with unanimity, the form of Church government that existed in Apostolic days. But difficult as it seems, it is proved quite possible, by a thorough and unprejudiced examination of the Scriptures, to discover the main principles that entered into the constitution of the primitive Church. We say the main principles – more than these we need not expect to find. The Word of God, except in some rare instances, never enters into details – it states principles. This is a very noticeable peculiarity of the Divine legislation, that deserves a passing remark.
In every civilised country, it may be observed how those entrusted with the duty of government aim to provide a law for every specific case. The human legislator descends to details. The result of this in our own country is, that the common and statute laws of England are so bulky that the books in which they are written would make of themselves a magnificent library; Parliament meets every year for the express purpose of constructing new, and amending old laws, to suit the ever varying circumstances of the country and the times; and notwithstanding all, cases occur daily in the public courts, wherein the most accomplished jurists have to acknowledge that the existing laws determine nothing.
But observe how the Divine law proceeds on a method quite different. It rarely enters into specific details, but lays down general principles, any one of which is quite sufficient to decide a whole multitude of cases. Instead, for instance, of attempting to prescribe every form of good that it is right for a man to perform to his neighbour, it lays down a principle quite sufficient to meet every case – Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Instead of enumerating the different ways by which children are to discharge the duties that they owe their parents. Scripture enacts this general law, holding good in every case – Honour thy father and thy mother. Declining to specify every semblance of sin that it were well for Christians to avoid, the statutes of the Lord direct us to – Abstain from all appearance of evil.
Human legislation enters into minute details, but Divine legislation enacts general principles. The result is that, while there is perhaps more room left for difference of opinion in the interpretation and application of the enactments of a code of law constructed on the latter system, yet this disadvantage is more than counterbalanced by the fact, that the laws of God are in themselves perfect; that they do not change with the ever varying circumstances of countries and of times; that they meet every case which can possibly occur; and that they are compressed into a reasonable size, being all written in a book so small that it can be lifted in the hand, or carried in the pocket.
Now, the Scripture teaches us Church government, as it teaches morality. It does not furnish minute details, but it supplies the great leading principles that entered into the polity of the Apostolic Church. What these main principles were, it is now our purpose to ascertain.
Our Plan of Discussion
It is the common practice of writers, in discussing the important subject of ecclesiastical government, to select some one of our modern Churches which happens to be a favourite, delineate its characteristic features, and then proceed to shew that they are a reflection of the pattern presented in the Word of God. That this plan has some recommendations, we can readily believe, but it is no less obvious that it is liable to grave objections. It seems to assume at the commencement the conclusion to which the reasoner can only hope to conduct us after a sound process of logic. It somehow produces the fatal impression, that the writer has determined in the first place that his view of the subject is right, and then goes to Scripture to search for proof of it. The author may be the most impartial and truth-loving of men, but his very plan betrays a preference for some particular system, and thus, at the outset, awakes the prejudices of many readers. Besides, it affords opportunities, for viewing passages of Scripture apart from their connection, and tempts writers to quote in their favourite texts, the sound of which only is upon their side. For these reasons we do not choose to adopt this method on the present occasion.
The plan of procedure we propose is more unusual, though, we trust, not less satisfactory. We will examine the Holy Scriptures with a view of ascertaining from them the various facts that bear on the government of the Apostolic Church. We will produce the passages, contemplate them in their immediate connection, unfold their meaning, and try if, by their aid, we can arrive at great principles.
We will then turn to our modern Churches, view the different forms of ecclesiastical polity that exist in the world at present, and see which of them it is that embodies all or most of these principles. When this is done, we shall have found the denomination that, in point of government, is best entitled to be regarded as the Apostolic Church.
This process of reasoning is so very clear and simple that there is no room for practising deception either on ourselves or our readers. The very humblest intellect may follow our logic to the close. There are but two steps till we arrive at the conclusion.
First, we are to ascertain from the unerring Word of God what were the main principles in the government of the Churches founded by the Apostles of the Lord; and, secondly, we are to ascertain in which of our modern Churches these main principles are most fully acknowledged and carried out.
We will then apply to the settlement of the matter an axiom, radiant in the light of its own self-evidence. That axiom is, The modern Church which embodies in its government most apostolic principles, comes nearest in its government to the Apostolic Church.